Special report: Through sands, under bridges, over the weather (Final part)

FOR 16 years, Richard Villaver manually extracts black sand in Cagayan de Oro river.

However, over time, his livelihood was affected by the Department Order (DO) 139 issued by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) central office. The order forbids quarry or dredging activities, throughout the country, about one kilometer distance from any public or private works or structure.

This has become a dilemma for Villaver and his group, as the stretch of the river where they get the sands is situated between three bridges: Ysalnia “Carmen” Bridge, Marcos bridge, and the Puntod-Kauswagan bridge.

But this is not only the choke point Villaver and his group were able to face; among their community, there were issues that had to be ironed out.

Internal dispute

Engineer John Lennon Felisarta, Engineer-2 of DPWH-Northern Mindanao, said that their agency had a series of dialogues between the river quarrying community in Consolacion and Isla de Oro, another community of local quarriers in the neighboring village.

Felisarta said that there were groups who “followed the rules” and there were those who continued to operate and plead in order to be recognized in their operations - Villaver belonged to the latter.

These dialogues were facilitated by the City Local Environment Office (Clenro) and the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“These groups appealed many times already, I heard some information that there were instances Clenro halted their operations and detained some operators,” he said.

However, Villaver admitted that there was a divide among their group as there were two associations of river sand quarriers for a time since 2014, but he believes that this was the result of some local government officials, including their local barangay, who have personal interest in their small livelihood.

“We heard stories that some officials have vested interest, and they want their personal business get in to our operations. Those groups who were favored, they can sell and transport sand at any time, while we are warned even on early mornings, or late nights,” he said.

Letter to the President

Seeing as a way to finally resolve the issue, Villaver said in 2016 and 2017, their group wrote to the Office of the President, asking to persuade local government officials to allow them to continue their small-scale operations.

“We expressed our complaints there, from the way how our former barangay chairperson treated us unfairly, to how they caused division among our group into two associations,” he said.

Their letter did not go unnoticed, as this was received in Malacañang and then sent back to DPWH-10 to get reaction and evaluation of the matter. Changes of leadership in Clenro and barangay leaders, after the barangay elections took place earlier this year, have also favored Villaver’s group.

Engineer Armen Cuenca, the new head of Clenro, has visited the local quarrying communities and suggested that the two associations should merge and become a cooperative.

The new barangay chairperson, Alex Sander Ligtas, was also supportive of the local quarriers concerns. Thus, early in 2018, the Isla de Oro-Consolacion Quarry Cooperative was registered under the Cooperative Development Authority, and Villaver is one of its Board Members.

Gaining ground

The re-organization of Villaver’s group into a cooperative resulted the issuance of a Special Permit from Clenro, and not only that, it has won the bidding to supply the city of sand and gravel for the local government's infrastructure projects.

Cuenca said that the existence of these local sand quarriers has no issues for him, but because of the DPWH's order on river dredging operations for flood control, he advised the group to talk with the DPWH.

"Although the barangay gave a recommendation, I told them that the next step they would do is get clearance from the DPWH. I told them that we (Clenro) have no problem with them operating, only that they have to clarify with DPWH that their operations are done manually," Cuenca explained.

However, the special permit was only temporary, and Villaver said that the special permit requires the group to continue complying with the requirements set by Clenro and DPWH to be given a "delivery receipt" and other clearances.

DPWH-10 spokesperson Vinah Jeanne Maghinay, said that the agency is waiting for its compliance, since this was also indicated in DO 139.

“Although they have written to the office of the President, it will still be coursed through us, and we are also compelled to wait for their submission of requirements,” she said.

Flooding threats

Villaver and his folks already know the drill when there are weather conditions that may threat of flooding.

“We just tie up our boats, and go back to recover it after,” he said.

For Cuenca, he believes that there is no direct threat in the infrastructure like the bridges in Cagayan River, if local quarrying operations continue, which are done manually, since the sand is replenished over time as the water runs off from the tributaries. And it requires constant extraction of sand in order to keep the depth of the river.

Villaver and his group know the risk of flooding, and yet, despite this, they continue to thrive in the river and gather the sand that would earn them around P500 to P700 a day. A small, “elf” truck of sand costs around P900, and sold by hardware merchants at P1,500 to P2,000.

As vehicles in the Cagayan de Oro's main bridges are beginning to cause heavy traffic due to the rush hour, Cagayan river remained calm that afternoon when Villaver is about to finish repairing a quarrying boat. Some distance from him, his fellow quarriers begin to resume taking other boats and paddled the river with long bamboo sticks.

‘Tis another day, indeed, in the city’s riversides.

(This story was funded under the “Covering Extractive Industries: Digging Out The Stories That Matter” Fellowship Program of the Philippine Press Institute in partnership with the Philippine Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiative.)


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